Nakamarra’s Abstraction: Continuity and Change

I remember visiting Papunya Tula Artists’ Todd Street shop late in 1998, a few months after Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri passed away. Namarari was among the first of PTA’s artists whose work I came to recognize and love: the bold swirls of Bandicoot Dreamings, the subtle variations of the dotted fields of Kangaroo or Marsupial Mouse Dreamings, the broad, bold stripes of Rain Dreamings. I was hoping that I might find something to add to our collection at this last moment, though I knew the odds were long.Daphne Williams was hesitant when I asked. Yes, she said, I have a couple of small canvases, but I can only show them to you very quickly, in the back room. She explained that Mick’s widow was still in town, and Daphne feared upsetting her should she wander into the shop and see the paintings again. 

When we returned to PTA in 2001, Daphne remembered the incident, and our interest. This time, she suggested, we might want to look at some new canvases that Mick’s widow, Elizabeth Marks Nakamarra, had painted; she also had a small Mouse Dreaming their daughter Angelina had recently completed. I remember that last work as being a gem-like haze of pointillist dots and to this day I regret passing over it, as Angelina’s artistic career proved short-lived, and we never saw another of her works.

But that day sparked an enduring interest on my part in Nakamarra’s work, in no small part because the paintings that we saw that day, while quite different from those of her late husband, showed her, like Mick, to be an artist willing to experiment with a variety of styles. Like many of the widows or daughters of the great old painting men of Papunya Tula, Nakamarra did not take up painting her husband’s Dreamings. Instead, she began producing works that were focused on her own country, in her case Kalipinpa, just north of Sandy Blight Junction and Kintore.

Kalipinpa is the site of a major Rain Dreaming, most famously depicted in the masterpieces of Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula. In the Tingari story, groups of ancestral men and women gathered at the rockhole at Kalipinpa, where they danced and sang the stories associated with the area before continuing on to the west and the country around the great salt lake at Wilkinkarra, or Lake Mackay.

One of the paintings that Daphne showed us that day was done in the classic style in which the Kintore women worked at that time, with a heavy impasto of white acrylic on a black field marking out a bush tucker story: the women collecting kampurarrpa, or bush raisins near the main rockhole of Kalipinpa. It was in some ways an unusually naturalistic work, with a clearly recognizable branch of honey grevillea in the upper-right corner and large black bush raisins set around the central waterhole and its surrounding sandhills. It was a lovely example of the style of work being painted in the early years of the women’s painting movement out of Kintore but, I thought, nothing more. (My thanks to Papunya Tula Artists for permission to reproduce the images included here.)

Another painting in the lot that Daphne shared with us that day was quite another story, however.

Well, not another story in the sense that it, too, was a Kalipinpa Rain Dreaming showing the great lightning storm and the ensuing floods that swept across the country, swirling over the sandhills and filling the rockholes. But the iconography of this painting was most unusual, the composition extraordinarily dynamic. It shared a quality of naturalism with the black-and-white composition, though. These were works that required no great leap of comprehension, no tutelage in the traditional iconography of Pintupi painting to decipher the world being depicted.

There is no need to precisely identify any graphic element in this composition to grasp its story. The jagged lines at the center certainly look like lightning bolts; they also call to mind the rough and broken channels that floods have eroded through the terrain around Kintore. The red circles suggest rockholes, but also, perhaps, unripe bush raisins. There is a suggestion of a creek bed in the unusual pale, sandy, dove-pink color of the ground behind those jagged lines and circles. The rest of the design, however, is far more ambiguous: it all reads as water in a hilly landscape, but I can’t say that one element is the rush of water, another is the representation of a sandhill. Nonetheless, the painting succeeds brilliantly at capturing the rush of floodwaters through the countryside. There is an exquisite balance, to my eye, between Pintupi and Western conventions of depicting landscapes. The painting captures the violence and the turbulence of the storm. This, I thought, was a striking and original new direction in Pintupi painting.

As the decade of the ‘Naughts progressed, other styles came to the fore. One of the major new directions in painting from Kintore and Kiwirkurra was the adoption of a vividly optical sense of design, a visual trickery that recalled the Op Art paintings of Sixties artists like Bridget Riley, filtered, of course, through a Western Desert sensibility. The emergence of bold new styles from painters like George Ward Tjungurrayi, a dramatic minimalism in the works of Warlimprringa Tjapaltjarri, and the sinuous mature works ofCharlie Tjapangati all partook of this visual vibrancy. Elizabeth Marks Nakamarra joined in this experimentation, producing works with a complexity of surface like this canvas from 2003.

Nakamarra retains a looseness of hand in this work, a quirkiness of drawing that produces incidents to interest the eye beyond an illusionist’s tricks. The regularity of right angles in three corners of the work gives way to a looser composition in the upper-right corner of the work as shown here (I’ve rotated the canvas 90 degrees to allow for a fuller, more detailed presentation of the design in the confined space of a browser window). Just right of center a gentle curve intrudes into the maze; at the upper left a pair of concentric rectangles emerge to float semi-detached above the rest of the design.

More recently, Nakamarra has tightened up her line and begun to experiment with the effects of color on her geometry.

Indeed, I could say that in this 2008 work she has begun drawing with color, fashioning depth and direction by varying shades of yellow-orange that are set against an dull gray line that nonetheless sings with a pearlescent quality. (This ability to manipulate the eye’s perception of this neutral gray that sits in the background of many such paintings is a device employed frequently by several Papunya Tula artists and one that never fails to surprise me when I discover that some brilliant sky-blue line or a vivid white accent turns out on close inspection to be more the color of a battleship more than anything else.)

Moreover, the illusion of stair-step depth is this painting will not maintain itself in my eye. Nakamarra breaks up the pattern on the right-hand side, flattening out the appearance of depth. Once the Escheresque spell of illusion is broken, my eye starts to focus on the larger pattern created by the darker and lighter blocks of orange stripes; field and ground destabilize and suddenly the entire surface of the canvas appears to be in flux, heaving, flowing, stopping, and then starting up again.

As I was pondering this painting’s ability to create such visual turbulence, I was suddenly reminded that it, like the previous two works I’ve reproduced here, depicts the Rain Dreaming at Kalipinpa. Lining the photographs of the three paintings up side by side, I was struck by how much they resemble one another.

[Untitled], 2001, 168×61 cm [Untitled], 2003, 153×61 cm [Untitled], 2008, 87×28 cm

In each painting, with a little imagination and if you know the story, you can see how Nakamarra brilliantly suggests the flashing lightning and the cascading water of the storm. Over the years she has experimented by increasing the level of abstraction in her representation of the Dreaming and the countryside. She continues her experiments with color as well. From the very first she understood the power of monochromatic design; at the same time she has worked with color choices that vary subtly from the classic red-yellow-black-and-white Pintupi palette to achieve bold and dramatic effects that nonetheless remain true to the colors of her country (seen in this snippet at right from Google Maps of a landscape of rocky gullies just north of Kintore).

I am fascinated by the way in which Nakamarra’s career has illustrated many of the points of tension between traditional and western ways of image making. Some critics of Aboriginal methods complain that most painters paint the same painting over and over again and dismiss the argument that many western artists, working in series, do the same. Nakamarra manages to have it both ways, remaining faithful to the core of the Dreaming and to a traditional palette, working variations on both drawing and painting, and skillfully deploying imagery drawn from both traditional and western models (the roundel and curve, as well as the abstracted line) to expand her visual vocabulary. It is in this mode of innovation within tradition, of refashioning the customary while remaining true to it, that I find her closest kinship with the late great artist to whom she was married.

All images reproduced with the generous permission of Papunya Tula Artists. 

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